EIGHT Israeli policemen go on trial on March 18, two years after they allegedly tortured two Palestinian youths in order to extract false murder confessions from them.
The case begins in Jerusalem's district court as another seven policemen face investigation into charges that they administered electric shocks last year while interrogating Palestinian boys accused of throwing stones at Israeli vehicles.
The two cases focus attention on widespread allegations of abuse of Palestinian detainees during questioning, especially in the wake of the death last month of Mustapha Akkawi, while under interrogation in Hebron prison.
And while Israeli human rights organizations say they believe that outright beatings are less common than they once were in the secret interrogation cells around the occupied West Bank, they are concerned by an apparent shift toward more psychological methods, used in the context of general ill-treatment.
Interrogators from the General Security Service (GSS), more commonly known by its Hebrew acronym Shin Bet, "have changed the composition of the violence they use," says Daphna Golan, research director at the Israeli human rights watchdog Btselem. "They use less direct physical violence, and more psychological violence" when questioning Palestinian detainees.
But cruel and degrading conditions of detention have become "routine," adds Ms. Golan, coauthor of a forthcoming report on the interrogation of prisoners.
The case of Amin Amin, a student at the West Bank university of Bir Zeit, illustrates these changes. When Mr. Amin was arrested and detained for 24 days in 1989, he reported undergoing extreme physical violence at the hands of his interrogators, including being beaten on the soles of his feet and given electric shocks, until he was eventually hospitalized. He was released without being charged with any offense.
Amin was arrested again last month, and subjected to a very different sort of interrogation for 13 days, he says, before again being released without charge.
This time, Amin says, his jailers sought to break him psychologically. He was kept in a a room measuring one meter by one meter, with an open window, in which the temperature drop-ped to near freezing at night. His hands were permanently cuffed behind his back, and, except during the interrogation sessions, his head was covered by a heavy sack smelling of urine and feces that he says made it hard to breathe.
Every half hour, he says, a guard would prod him until he responded, thus depriving him of continuous sleep. Three times a day he was taken to a filthy unventilated toilet where he was given a bowl of soup and a bowl of rice on the floor and allowed three minutes to perform bodily functions and eat, he charges.
During the interrogation sessions, however, his interrogators hardly touched a hair of his head, Amin says. Instead, they tried calmly and persistently to convince him of the futility of the Palestinian cause, probing him about his political activities, but never indicating exactly what information they wanted from him.
The interrogator "is trying to go inside your brain and convince you that you are nothing," Amin says. "They are trying to kill your soul, to empty you from the inside. I think it is much worse than physical torture. When they finish beating you, it is over. But this time, it kept going, 24 hours a day, you feel you are getting weak, that there is no meaning to your life, no meaning to your future, that there is nothing you can do because they control you."
Although practices such as sleep deprivation, hooding, and close confinement are not individually defined as torture, "the combination of methods constitutes torture, it is not one method on its own," Golan says.
Since Btselem published a report on torture allegations a year ago, Golan says, the Army has taken some steps to improve its treatment of detainees under interrogation, and has tried to hand over responsibility for all questioning to the Shin Bet.
"Because the nature of the intifadah [uprising] has calmed down," and fewer Palestinians are being arrested for intifadah offences, "the Army has gradually got out of the business of questioning," says a military source.
But what happens in the Shin Bet cells in police stations and Army facilities is beyond any control. "When a man is being questioned by the GSS, he is a GSS prisoner. Even if he is in an Army facility, we really don't know.... They tell us what they want to tell us," the military source says.
Under military regulations, a prisoner in the occupied territories can be held for up to 18 days before being brought before a judge, and prisoners are very often denied access to a lawyer, according to Israeli human rights groups that monitor detentions.
"That gives the security services 18 days to do what they want," Golan complains. "And ... there is no external body that can check what the security services are doing."
When a government commission was set up in 1987 to investigate Shin Bet practices, it ruled that "the exertion of a moderate measure of physical pressure" is acceptable when interrogating terrorist suspects. Though the Landau guidelines on permissible pressure are secret, the case of Mustapha Akkawi, who died Feb. 4 while under Shin Bet interrogation, suggests what is allowed.
During the forensic investigation of Akkawi's death, his interrogator acknowledged keeping the prisoner handcuffed and hooded in freezing temperatures, enclosing him in a tiny room, and depriving him of sleep. The police concluded, however, that there had been no irregularities in Akkawi's conditions of detention, and recommended that the file on his death be closed.
Even if anyone had been found guilty of misconduct in Akkawi's death, however, it is not clear that their punishment would have deterred them. Two Shin Bet interrogators who were tried in a closed court in 1990 after a prisoner in their care died of internal hemorrhaging caused by blows to the abdominal region were found guilty of causing death by negligence. They were sentenced to six months' imprisonment.
Human rights campaigners point out that Israeli violations do not compare with those in some other countries, such as neighboring Syria, for example.
But as Golan puts it, "what is happening here is absolutely illegal under both international and Israeli law. And it is no consolation for a Palestinian suffering detention conditions like these to know that it was worse in Chile."